Category Archives: study abroad

Valerie Smith: Law School Teaches Law and Life Lessons

“I wanted to go to law school as long as I can remember,” recalled WMU-Cooley law student Valerie Smith. Yet it wasn’t until the single mother of three got the go ahead from her children that she had the courage to pursue her dream.

“I remember coming home one day from my job as a paralegal,” said Smith. “I remember being frustrated. I was 40-years-old. A single mother of two daughters and a son. I was struggling to pay bills, even though I was working very, very hard.

“My kids sat me down to talk. They reminded me of my dream of going to law school and becoming an attorney. My oldest daughter said, ‘Mom, it’s never too late, and you’re never too old.'”

That was it. Smith took the LSAT, then applied and was accepted to WMU-Cooley Law School.

“That day changed my life forever,” declared Smith.

WMU-Cooley student Valerie Smith

Advocate for Other People

“I will never forget the day I was accepted to WMU-Cooley Law School,” exclaimed Smith. “I had been really busy because I had just moved, and hadn’t checked my e-mail for several days. During a break at work though, I decided I would take a look. I saw an email from WMU-Cooley Law School congratulating me on my seat! I started screaming in my office and one of the attorneys came running over to me and said, ‘Valerie, are you alright?’ And I said, ‘Yes!’ as I burst into tears. ‘This is one of the happiest moments of my life. I just got accepted to law school, counselor!’ And he said, ‘Well, congratulations, future counselor!'”

Since starting law school, Smith confesses that she has learned as much about life and herself as she has about the law.

“My first day at WMU-Cooley,” recalled Smith, “the professors told our class that attorneys have others’ lives in their hands – just like a doctor does with our physical well-being, an attorney has others’ lives in our hands – maybe not physically or medically, but financially, emotionally, mentally, situationally, and legally. It is a huge responsibility. We need to be their advocates.”

Smith says she has never forgotten that lesson. She comes to class every day prepared and ready to be another’s true advocate.

“I value my legal education here at WMU-Cooley,” stated Smith. “I never take it for granted. I am here to help my colleagues, and they are always here to help me. Even my 20-something-year-old classmates support, help and encourage me. I’ve never felt like an outsider, but that I belong.

“The professors have been so encouraging and have given me so many opportunities. They made it possible for me to participate in the law school’s study abroad program in New Zealand, which was an experience of a lifetime that I never thought would be possible. And I was also given the opportunity to be a professor’s teaching assistant.”

WMU-Cooley Vibe

Smith believes the WMU-Cooley curriculum and people are second to none.

“The curriculum at WMU-Cooley is so challenging, amazing, interesting, and intriguing, but it’s the people that stand out,” declared Smith. “There is a vibe here at WMU-Cooley that I don’t think you will find at most other law schools. That vibe includes enthusiasm and due diligence. It includes positive attitudes and commitment. And the encouragement you receive among the staff, professors, and students is contagious.

“We are an energized, diverse group of people who all have the same goal. We just want to be lawyers and save lives.”

WMU-Cooley student Valerie Smith

1 Comment

Filed under Student Experiences, Student News, study abroad, The Value of a Legal Education, Uncategorized

Immigration vocation: Law grad who came to U.S. as a child from Guatemala plans to help others

Luis Vasquez came to the United States from Guatemala at the age of 9, after his widowed mother brought her family to join her sister in Waco, Texas. “My mother made the difficult decision to move here three years after my dad passed away from an automobile accident,” says Vasquez, a recent graduate from Western Michigan University Cooley Law School.

Luis Vasquez runs with the bulls in Pamplona during his WMU-Cooley study abroad

Luis Vasquez runs with the bulls in Pamplona during his WMU-Cooley study abroad

Life wasn’t easy for the youngster, who was enrolled in an English as Second Language program as a fourth-grader in his first year of school in Texas.

“It was hard to transition at first,” he says. “It was hard for my mother trying to raise three kids on her own. I had to be the role model for my sisters. “My mother always reminded me of her sacrifice to come to this country and all she asked of us was to further our education.”

Overcoming those early struggles, Vasquez earned an associate’s degree at a local community college, paying his way with a job as a dishwasher and later as a server, as well as with help from a local scholarship. He went on to earn his undergrad degree in government in 2006 from the University of Texas at Austin.

“I didn’t think I was going to be able to attend college, but I researched and found a house bill in Texas which allowed students in my situation get some state aid and pay in-state tuition,” he says. “I didn’t qualify for federal aid, which made things real hard.”

His family had to wait over 20 years to get legal residency—an experience that inspired Vasquez to study law with the goal of specializing in immigration law. Unable to further his education until his immigration status got resolved, the years following undergrad were some of the hardest in his life.

“But I never lost hope of one day becoming a lawyer,” he says.

In June 2013, his green card arrived—and in less than a year, he was enrolled at WMU-Cooley. He started at the Ann Arbor campus, later moving to the Auburn Hills campus.

“I really enjoyed the willingness of the faculty to want to help you out, and the resources to help you succeed in your classes,” he says. “When I first got to Michigan I didn’t have a car and Dean Vestrand gave me a ride to orientation—that’s one of the many highlights the faculty did for me.”

Immigration law was clearly his niche—he received the Certificate of Merit for the highest grade in the class.

As a student attorney in Cooley’s Sixty Plus ElderLaw Clinic, Vasquez particularly appreciated the detailed classroom component.

“I got to work with real clients with real problems and had to figure out a way to solve their issues. It was a great way to put into practice the skills I’ve gained through classes,” he says.

“Professor O’Leary, who heads the clinic, has been one of my mentors. She made me feel like I could practice as soon as I graduated.”

While working at the clinic, Vasquez also served as outreach coordinator to the Spanish-speaking communities in Lansing, providing seniors at risk of financial exploitation with education about preventive measures, and on how to contact the Sixty Plus Clinic for assistance.

In the summer of 2015, Vasquez studied international law in the Study Abroad Program in Madrid, Spain.

“It was a blast,” he says. “I got to do the running of the bulls in Pamplona.”

The following spring, he participated in the New Zealand/Australia study abroad program, receiving the Certificate of Merit in Equities and Remedies and in the following semester serving as teaching assistant for that class.

When not studying, he enjoyed touring Down Under.

“I did a 10-hour hike in the wilderness in the south island of New Zealand, and scuba dived for the first time, at the Great Barrier Reef in Australia were I got to scuba with sharks. It was great experience.

“Both programs had great international law classes where I learned a lot, and I got to experience different cultures. Studying abroad had been one of my dreams, but I couldn’t leave the country until I got my permanent status in the United States.”

Vasquez participated in several Cooley volunteer activities, including planting flowers for elderly residents at Avalon Housing in Ann Arbor, packing food at Forgotten Harvest for people in need, and helping with a Thanksgiving event at Avondale High School, organized by Professor Martha Moore.

“We collected and provided food to people who didn’t have the money to buy a Thanksgiving dinner. The faces of the people leaving with the boxes of food was a very rewarding experience—it was great,” he says. “Cooley’s many community service events were always so rewarding and give students the ability to give back.”

Vasquez has returned to Waco and will enter the University of Texas Law School this fall to study for an LLM in international law, focusing in immigration.

“I want to learn as much as I can in that area before I start to work,” he says. “I would like to have my own practice in immigration law, and help out as many people as I can by fixing their situation, which I can totally relate to.

“I think there are kids who are brought to the United States, not by choice, who want to work, study hard—and who can’t further their talents because of their legal status, mainly because the path to get legal status is so hard. Without a legal status they don’t qualify for government aid or loans, and when they graduate they can’t get a job. The DREAM Act is the most promising legislation that could allow people who came at a young age get legal status, but has failed to pass.”

Although he is happy to return to the Lone Star State, Vasquez will always have fond memories of Michigan.

“I always wanted to live some place where it snowed, so I’ll miss some of that,” he says. “I’m also going to miss the friends I’ve made here, including some of my professors. I really feel like I got a high-quality education at Cooley.”

Last November, Vasquez made his first trip back to Guatemala since leaving as a child in 1993.

“It was awesome to re-unite with family I hadn’t seen since I left—my grandmother, aunts, uncles, and cousins,” he says.

As he looks back over his life and his path to success, Vasquez has one main thought.

“I want to give credit to God, who I believe has been helping me throughout this journey.”

This article about WMU-Cooley graduate Luis  Vasquez was written by Legal News writer Sheila Pursglove originally published by the Legal News on May 10, 2017. It is reprinted here with permission of The Detroit Legal News. 

Leave a comment

Filed under Alumni Stories and News, study abroad, The Value of a Legal Education, Uncategorized

Go on an Adventure! Study Abroad in Australia/New Zealand Unforgettable Experience.

Law students from Michigan, Texas, and Montana took full advantage of WMU-Cooley’s study abroad program in Australia and New Zealand. The adventure started on a flight taking them to the other side of the world and ended with many unforgettable and amazing experiences, meeting new people and learning new ideas and new laws.

Students  jumped out of a plane, surfed Australia’s beaches, dived and snorkeled in the Great Barrier Reef, climbed the Grampian Mountains, and fed koalas and kangaroos. They explored rainforests and the grand rock formations along the Great Ocean Road, affectionately called the Twelve Apostles. They traversed the bustling city of Melbourne from Saint Kilda beach, to Williamstown, to the legal district, to the Mornington Peninsula, to the heights of the Eureka Tower. They enjoyed Footy games, beach gatherings, and festivals.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

The law students also learned what it means to be an Australian lawyer. They visited a student-staffed legal aid office where law students offered advice to clients about ordinary legal matters. They visited a barrister who explained the world of litigation. They even got to try on his wig and robe! They listened to hearings in the Magistrate’s Court.

In the classroom, law students studied Comparative International Laws ranging from Business Law, to Torts, to Equity & Remedies. Guest speakers made the experience real by exploring an actual Australian equity case. They studied in the iconic Victoria State Library and visited the impressive Victoria Parliament.

Go on an adventure! WMU-Cooley Study Abroad law students will tell you it’s an experience you will cherish for the rest of your lives.

WMU-Cooley Law School Professor Kimberly E. O’Leary directs the term’s Study Abroad program in New Zealand and Australia. She and her students share their experiences.

Leave a comment

Filed under Latest News and Updates, Student News, Achievements, Awards, study abroad, Uncategorized

Law Student from Germany Learns What Real Freedom Means While Helping the Wrongfully Convicted

I’m a 22 years old law student from Germany. As part of an international exchange program, I spent my last term doing a study abroad experience here at WMU-Cooley Law School. Coming to Michigan, and working with the WMU-Cooley Innocence Project, was an experience I will never forget – Anna-Lisa Benkhoff, Muenster University law student and WMU-Cooley Innocence Project intern

When I decided to come to America and attend WMU-Cooley Law School, I had no idea what kind of experiences it would bring. Growing up, I always sought out new opportunities and to challenge myself. I heard about the WMU-Innocence Project when I was looking into study abroad opportunities in the United States. I was excited about the idea that students got to work on actual criminal cases with real people who have been wronged. I especially like that I would learn practical knowledge and skills in the law.

The WMU-Cooley Innocence Project fights against wrongful convictions in post-conviction cases, using DNA-testing to prove innocence.

I spent much of my time in the law clinic working on one case. Our client was convicted of criminal sexual conduct in the first degree, involving two perpetrators. It was the first case I ever worked on and it was an unbelievable experience. I actually was able to meet our client in prison.

Once I got to meet him in person, I knew I was working for the right reasons. It means a lot to be able to help someone who has been wronged get out of prison.

Based on our work, the client was granted an evidentiary hearing on the WMU-Cooley Innocence Project’s motion under MCR 6.500. During the hearing, the judge heard our newly discovered evidence. From that evidence, the judge must decide whether to grant our client a new trial.

In addition to doing research to support the case, I wrote legal memos and assisted in preparing the case for litigation. I feel so proud that I helped to prepare the paperwork needed for our client’s evidentiary hearing. I helped to prepare a witness list and questions for direct and cross examinations.

 During the hearing, WMU-Cooley Innocence Project interns questioned witnessed on the stand – just like a real lawyer.

The evidentiary hearing took four days, and is now submitted to the court for a decision.

Even though I’m leaving the United States and the WMU-Cooley Innocence Project, I will continue to follow its important work. I had a such a great time and got to meet so many nice and very cool people. I now realize the hard work it takes to improve the criminal justice system. I would recommend this experience to anyone. Not only do you gain practical legal skills and experience, you have the privilege of doing something very important – saving someone from life imprisonment when they have been wrongfully convicted. It was unforgettable.

WMU-Cooley Innocence Project Director Marla Mitchell-Cichon and German International Exchange Program law student Anna-Lisa Benkhoff.

WMU-Cooley Innocence Project Director Marla Mitchell-Cichon and German International Exchange Program law student Anna-Lisa Benkhoff.

Leave a comment

Filed under Student Experiences, study abroad, The Value of a Legal Education, Uncategorized, WMU-Cooley Innocence Project

New Zealand Land, Culture & People True Adventure

WMU-Cooley law students have jumped into their study abroad experience with both feet, warmly embracing this special land. Nothing short of an adventure, New Zealand’s changeable landscapes and experiences have been life changing. The challenging international courses have been enlightening and the world down under breathtaking with the richness of its oceans, mountains, ferns, and its multi-cultural, open and friendly citizenry.

Students were based in Hamilton, New Zealand, on the campus of the University of Waikato for their classroom experience, but their educational experience traveled far and wide.

Students compared Chinese & New Zealand law and New Zealand International Trade. They learned about the United Nations and Indigenous Rights. By the end of the term, they were making presentations in the state-of-the-art courtroom in the new law building. But that was just the start of their adventure in learning.

Travels included trips to the world-famous Raglan beach, Mount Manganui, touring the Marlborough wine region, absailing into Waitomo Caves, bungy jumping in Queenstown. It took their breath away!

16684017_10208644941897288_711409018781777267_n

Students learned about Maori culture and legal systems. They were invited onto the Kirrikirriroa Marae, where they were formally welcomed and allowed to participate in part of an alternative sentencing workshop with criminal offenders. They visited the Maori Land Court, where they shared Hongi and tea with Court staff and Judge Stephanie Milroy.

20170108_173411

Students visited law firm McCaw Lewis, where they shared a meal with attorneys. They even learned to play cricket. During their last week, Dean Wayne Rumbles hosted a BBQ for the WMU-Cooley students at his home, where he cooked for the students and shared laughter and fellowship.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Aeoteara/New Zealand will stay in the hearts of WMU-Cooley students and faculty as they move on to Melbourne for more adventure!

1 Comment

Filed under Student Experiences, study abroad, The Value of a Legal Education, Uncategorized

Weekend law student Stephanie Samuels: Never too late to start a new life

Stephanie Samuels was almost 60 years old when she finally discovered she could make her life dream of going to law school a reality. Up until then, “life sort of just happened,” and it was never really an option – until she heard about WMU-Cooley’s weekend program.

“I talked to my husband about it,” said Samuels, “and I said, ‘You know what, I think I might be able to do this.'”

Since Stephanie worked for American Airlines, she philosophized that, with a little bit of creativity and some luck, it was within reason for her to fly from her home in the Texas, Dallas-Fort Worth area to WMU-Cooley’s Lansing campus once a week for classes. Well, that is exactly what she was able to do, every weekend for the last five years.

Even better, she was able to fly back and forth for free.

“Now the cool thing for me is I actually can fly standby,” grinned Stephanie, “and in the entire five years I went to law school, I only missed one weekend. WMU-Cooley has been flexible – really, really flexible for me. I have been able to do a lot of things I never thought I would be able to do. I got to be part of a mock trial team as a weekend student, plus I got to study abroad two semesters, in both Oxford, England and in Hamilton, New Zealand. I would never have been able to do those kind of things had it not been for Cooley and the weekend program.

“All of my law school experiences have really opened life up for me and given me the confidence to start my own private practice in international law. I’m even thinking about doing a non-profit, which was an offshoot idea I got from a contact I made during my time in New Zealand. One of the professors at the University of Waikato was a member of the United Nations in New York and she invited me and another law student to the UN’s annual indigenous rights convention.  What an incredible opportunity! I will never forget it.

“I am so excited to start this new life and explore all the possibilities . They are endless to me now. That’s because of Cooley.”

stephanie_mom

Leave a comment

Filed under Student Experiences, study abroad, The Value of a Legal Education, Uncategorized, Weekend Program

Finding Oneself on the Other Side of the World

The Northland region of New Zealand is full of legends and stories significant to Kiwi culture. Professor Kimberly O’Leary got to recently travel in the Northland region. She embraced the land – rich with beauty and meaning. Despite the possible difficulty to traverse the mountainous, hilly New Zealand terrain, she and her husband forged ahead to conquer Mount Manaia, located in the Whangerai Heads, like so many other travelers do each year.

20161218_131927

The hike, consisting of over 1000 stairs, makes a short but steep trail through New Zealand bush, ferns, mangrove trees, and blooming flowers. The mountain is the remnants of a volcano that erupted 20 million years ago. At it’s top are five vertical stones that can be seen for miles around. Legend says that Chief Manaia, the Chief’s children, a rival Chief, and the rival Chief’s wife all turned to stone by the God of Thunder.

20161218_114309

The hard climb was well worth the hardship and time.  Professor O’Leary and her husband were rewarded at the top with stunning view of the bays and the surrounding area. Travelers also enjoy the walk through the tropical bush,  replete with birdsong and the magnificent blooms of the Pahutakawa trees, often called by locals as the New Zealand Christmas tree due to its bedazzling red foliage during the holiday season.

20161220_123301_hdr

The nearby Bay of Islands is considered the birthplace of New Zealand; home to Maori origin legends and the first Maori encounters with western sailors. Professor O’Leary ventured out by boat, traveling past the black rocks, nesting sea birds, beautiful islands, several pods of dolphins, and the famous Motu Kokako, also known as the “Hole in the Rock.” Motu Kokako represents strength through adversity after all it had endured to withstand the sea. The Urupukapuka Island water is so clear and translucent that you can see all the way to the bottom. All are treated to another stunning view of the bay, blooming pahutakawa, and jacaranda trees after a climb to the top.

20161220_110741_burst01

The trip to Cape Reinga had a breathtaking view of 90 mile beach. The Cape is at the upper most tip of New Zealand, and the place where the Tasman Sea meets the Pacific Ocean. The Maori believe this spot is the place where souls leap into the afterlife. Along the Tasman Sea coast, unspoiled beach extends for dozens of miles. It is said that the beach is 90 nautical miles from the Cape to Dargaville, hence the name “90-mile beach.” You get to ride a special “dune bus” about 40 miles on the sand of this beach.

20161221_115937

Also in the region is the largest known living kauri tree. Kauri trees existed along with dinosaurs, formerly growing all over the world. The only living kauri trees are now in New Zealand, with sub-species growing in Australia. These trees are known for growing very large – second only to giant redwoods. They were harvested aggressively in the 19th century, and are now protected. The largest living tree is called Tane Mahuta, which is a Maori name meaning “Lord of the Forest.”

20161222_130920_burst01

Tane Mahuta is estimated to be between 1500 and 2000 years old. Ancient fossilized remains of these trees produces amber, and speculators came from all over the world in the 19th century to mine for amber. Tane Mahuta grows in the Waipoua forest – a protected forest of native trees and plants and a special place.

Finding herself in the midst of ferns, birds, mountain tracks, dolphins, volcanic formations, the meeting of oceans, unspoiled beach and towering ancient trees, Professor Kimberly O’Leary found her own center, clear on the other side of the world.20161218_112110

Leave a comment

Filed under Faculty Scholarship, study abroad, Uncategorized